BANGKOK—Even as Burma’s rulers undertake a piecemeal transition to democracy, sectarian violence in the far west is a potent reminder that the vestiges of authoritarian rule will be hard to shake off.
A week of tit-for-tat sectarian and racial violence between Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Arakanese has left at least 21 people dead and prompted President Thein Sein to declare a state of emergency in Arakan State—a strategically important region bordering Bangladesh and close to multibillion dollar offshore gas fields.
The May 28 rape and murder of a Buddhist Arakanese woman initially triggered the unrest, although activists and analysts say that deep-rooted tensions between the Rohingya and Arakanese mean the region, also known as Rakhine, has long been a tinderbox and that new found freedoms in Burma could see rivalries between ethnic groups come to the fore.
Citing a slew of unreformed junta-era curbs imposed on the Rohingya, activist Debbie Stothard reminded that “six years ago we published a report saying that the Rohingya faced a genocide-like situation.” Ms Stothard is head of the Altsean Burma research group and was speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) on Wednesday.
The Rohingya are thought to number around 800,000 currently living in Burma, but are not recognized as one of the country’s official 135 ethnic groups under a 1982 law. They have fled the region in their hundreds of thousands—to Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and the Middle East—amid harsh restrictions on marriage and freedom of movement imposed by the Burmese military dictatorship.
Although three Rohingya men were arrested on May 29 in connection with the murder of Thidar Htwe, the Arakanese woman killed the previous day, 10 Muslims—who were not Rohingya—who were returning to central Burma from a pilgrimage to the western Burmese region, were dragged from a bus and lynched by a group of around 300 Arakanese on June 3.
As tensions rose over the following days, Muslims rioted after Friday prayers on June 8, though the Rohingya National Democratic Party for Development says that violence only erupted after police opened fire on the crowd, killing four. “We don’t have a clear idea what happened, exactly,” said Ms Htike, an Arakanese Muslim activist. Official figures received on Saturday indicated that seven Arakanese were killed in Friday’s clashes.
The Burmese government imposed a state of emergency in Arakan State on June 10, as communal violence continued, leaving 21 dead as of June 12. However, other unconfirmed reports put the death toll at around 100, after several days of rioting in Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Pauktaw and Akyab townships.
Both sides blame each other for the fighting, while dark-sounding conspiracy theories abound. Rohingya activists speaking at FCCT said that accounts from inside the conflict area suggest that Burmese security forces are siding with Arakanese mobs, citing recent arrests of prominent Rohingya working for international NGOs and UN agencies.
In turn, some Arakanese—and members of the majority Burman ethnic group—allege that Rohingya are al-Qaeda linked “Bengali terrorists” intent on destabilizing Burma with foreign support.
Rohingya too are playing the nationalist card, proclaiming their allegiance to Burma, with some suggesting that there is an Arakanese plot to purge Rohingya from the western state, an outcome that would enable the Arakanese to in turn focus on seceding from Burma.
“If they can drive the Muslims from Arakan, they will be the majority and can try disintegrating the union,” said Maung Maung Gyi, of the Anti-fascist People’s Freedom League.
More surprisingly, perhaps, recent days have seen a barrage of online racial slurs—mostly directed at Rohingya—with often-brazen calls for violence against the group coming as Burma’s citizens get used to freedom of expression after decades of restrictions.
“We have not seen this type of threat, this level of threat, before,” remarked Ms Stothard, who is also Deputy Secretary-General of FIDH, an international human rights organization. “There are even threats online to rape Muslim men,” she said, adding that “the Burmese government has not tried to censor this hate speech.”
A Burman student based in Thailand, who requested anonymity, said that “it is not helpful to say that the Rohingya face genocide,” referring to the Altsean report. “I have great concern over the message that Rohingya organizations and people involved in working in Rohingya issue and some media outside of the country, are trying to portray Rohingya as only victims,” she added.
Zaw Myat Htoo, an Arakanese present at the conference, said that his group’s viewpoint is not being covered adequately by international media. ”I am not saying who is killing who, but there are refugees on both sides, we must account for that too,” he said.
The Arakanese are a mostly Buddhist group of two-three million, whose then-centuries-old Mrauk U kingdom was annexed by the Burmese in 1784, and are one of four mainly Buddhist ethnic groups in modern-day Burma, alongside the Mon, Shan and Burmans—the latter making up around 60 percent of the country’s 50-60 million people.
The communal faceoff occurs as Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi heads to Europe, where she will visit France, Ireland, Norway, Switzerland and the UK. On June 6, Suu Kyi spoke with Muslim leaders in Rangoon and called on Buddhists to “have sympathy for minorities.”
However, the upsurge in violence and heightened racial-religious vitriol has left he recently-elected MP and 1991 Nobel Laureate “in a delicate position,” according to Debbie Stothard.
A strong statement condemning attacks on Rohingya could cost the NLD support among the Burman Buddhist majority, but a perceived failure to speak out could dent Suu Kyi’s long-held stature as a moral leader.
Rohingya leaders refused to criticize Suu Kyi, however, reminding that her party holds a mere six percent of seats in Burma’s Parliament. “We cannot expect her to resolve this,” said Maung Maung Gyi. “She is not the government and has a very slight minority in Parliament.”